It can be easy to forget that Christmas is about more than gifts and chocolate selection boxes; it’s about kindness and family, about friends and love for many people. But for others, it can be about loneliness and longing, about stress and vulnerability.
Whatever you’re feeling this Christmas – and into the new year – these 25 poems capture the spirit of the season and the range of emotions we feel. From traditional Christmas verses like The Twelve Days of Christmas, to modern poems by poets including L Kiew and Di Slaney and messages about the year ahead, as you read these words you’ll get a moment of respite from the chaos of the festive season.
Holly by Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti was one of the finest poets of the Victorian age, well known for collections including Goblin Market and Other Poems and The Face of the Deep. She addressed gender issues in her work, and was a female poet at a time when the area was dominated by men. Among Rossetti’s best known poems is this short work about one of the plants most associated with the Christmas season.
But give me holly, bold and jolly,
Honest, prickly, shining holly;
Pluck me holly leaf and berry
For the day when I make merry.
Published in Poems for Christmas, introduced by Judith Flanders for Macmillan Collector’s Library, £9.99, waterstones.co.uk
Account Of A Visit From St Nicholas by Major Henry Livingston, Jr
Our idea of what Santa Claus looks like comes from a variety of places (including Coca-Cola’s famous adverts), and among them in this famous poem, which many will know by its first words: ’Twas the night before Christmas. Up until recently, this poem was attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, but in his book Author Unknown: On The Trail Of Anonymous, Professor Don Foster gathered enough evidence to show it was Livingston who was the real author. Read the beginning of the poem below, and the whole thing here.
’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter…
Christmas by Heather Christie
Heather Christie’s poetry has been published in the US since 2009, but it was only in 2019 that she was published in the UK, with her second collection The Trees The Trees. Christie, who was born in New Hampshire in the US and now lives in Ohio, writes about joy and heartbreak in the 21st century, and her poem Christmas, while short, is a full journey through the Christmas season.
here is a piece of me it is my foot or it is my
spinal attachment they put a tree in the living
room of course you’d want to climb it only the
problem is we are not small enough and when we
were small enough we were not strong enough
it wasn’t even a question I do not want this many
parts I wish I were only one thing a kneecap
maybe or a liver if I had a real choice I would
be an analog phone then when you were with me
I would keep ringing and when you kissed me I
would hang up one man knew how to sing like a
dial tone I think he was our king unfortunately
I noticed everything today and the people won’t
let me return it
Published in The Trees The Trees (Corsair Poetry, £10.99), foyles.co.uk
To Mrs K, On Her Sending Me an English Christmas Plum-Cake at Paris by Helena Maria Williams
British poet Helen Maria Williams, born in 1761, was well known for her support of radical causes, such as abolitionism and the French Revolution. Her poems often talked about (and fought against) war, slavery, religion and Spanish colonial practices. Her poem about Christmas cake revolves around a foodstuff, but is also about home, longing and memory.
What crowding thoughts around me wake,
What marvels in a Christmas-cake!
Ah say, what strange enchantment dwells
Enclosed within its odorous cells?
Is there no small magician bound
Encrusted in its snowy round?
For magic surely lurks in this,
A cake that tells of vanished bliss;
A cake that conjures up to view
The early scenes, when life was new;
When memory knew no sorrows past,
And hope believed in joys that last! —
Mysterious cake, whose folds contain
Life’s calendar of bliss and pain;
That speaks of friends for ever fled,
And wakes the tears I love to shed.
Oft shall I breathe her cherished name
From whose fair hand the offering came:
For she recalls the artless smile
Of nymphs that deck my native isle;
Of beauty that we love to trace,
Allied with tender, modest grace;
Of those who, while abroad they roam,
Retain each charm that gladdens home,
And whose dear friendships can impart
A Christmas banquet for the heart!
The Twelve Days Of Christmas by Anonymous
You’ll likely think of The Twelve Days Of Christmas as a song, but it started life as a poem. Here, just to make sure you know all the gifts you’re getting, is the final verse (and you can read the whole poem here).
The twelfth day of Christmas
My true love sent to me
Twelve fiddlers fiddling,
Eleven ladies dancing,
Ten pipers piping,
Nine drummers drumming,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings,
Four colly birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and
A partridge in a pear tree.
Christmas, 1970 by Sandra M. Castillo
Born in Cuba in 1962, Sandra M. Castillo moved to Florida with her family when she was a child. Her poetry often draws on her early childhood living in Cuba, but this poem is set in the year she moved to America – a significant Christmas because it was the first in a new country. Christmas, 1970, sums up the feelings many of us experience of spending a special occasion away from the people and places that we love.
We assemble the silver tree,
our translated lives,
its luminous branches,
numbered to fit into its body.
place its metallic roots
to decorate our first Christmas.
Mother finds herself
opening, closing the Red Cross box
she will carry into 1976
like an unwanted door prize,
a timepiece, a stubborn fact,
an emblem of exile measuring our days,
marked by the moment of our departure,
our lives no longer arranged.
there is a photograph,
a Polaroid Mother cannot remember was ever taken:
I am sitting under Tia Tere’s Christmas tree,
her first apartment in this, our new world:
my sisters by my side,
I wear a white dress, black boots,
an eight-year-old’s resignation;
Mae and Mitzy, age four,
wear red and white snowflake sweaters and identical smiles,
on this, our first Christmas,
away from ourselves.
The future unreal, unmade,
Mother will cry into the new year
with Lidia and Emerito,
our elderly downstairs neighbors,
who realize what we are too young to understand:
Even a map cannot show you
the way back to a place
that no longer exists.
Published in My Father Sings, To My Embarrassment by Sandra M. Castillo, White Pine Press, £13.50, hive.co.uk. Republished with permission from White Pine Press.
In The Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti
One of Christina Rossetti’s most famous poems, In The Bleak Midwinter, talks about one of the aspects of Christmas we often sideline: the religious side.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
The Meeting by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Nineteenth century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of the few American writers who is honoured in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey; his bust was installed there in 1884. In The Meeting, Wadsworth Longfellow taps into the losses we might feel more keenly over the Christmas period.
After so long an absence
At last we meet again:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
Or does it give us pain?
The tree of life has been shaken,
And but few of us linger now,
Like the Prophet’s two or three berries
In the top of the uppermost bough.
We cordially greet each other
In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
How old and gray he is grown!
We speak of a Merry Christmas
And many a Happy New Year;
But each in his heart is thinking
Of those that are not here.
We speak of friends and their fortunes,
And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead.
And at last we hardly distinguish
Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
Steals over our merriest jests.
Published in Friends: A Poem for Every Day of the Year edited by Jane McMoreland Hunter, Batsford, £20, amazon.co.uk. Republished with permission from Batsford.
Before The Ice Is In The Pools by Emily Dickinson
You’ll likely know Emily Dickinson for her poem about mortality, Because I Could Not Stop For Death, or, very differently, from the recent Apple TV show Dickinson, in which the poet is played by Hailee Steinfeld. Her short poem about ice skating effectively evokes the spirit, and chill, of the season.
Before the ice is in the pools—
Before the skaters go,
Or any check at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow—
Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!
December began with shopping by L Kiew
L Kiew lives in London and is of Chinese-Malaysian descent. By day she’s an accountant, but her poetry has been widely published in magazines and pamphlets. She’s currently a participant in the London Library Emerging Writers Programme.
for the exotic: mint and apple sauce,
imported rosemary, cranberries, candied
peel and blocks of English butter.
It began with baking, the Christmas cake
drenched daily with dark brandy
until it oozed from the lightest finger-flick
and emptying jar after jar
of Robertson’s mincemeat into pastry.
Cinnamon gold-dusted everything.
After the final Advent window,
we opened all our doors,
welcoming hungry occupants, their cars
filling up the driveway, aunts and uncles,
cousins in greater and lesser iterations,
the generations dressed in batik, bearing gifts.
The kitchen was ever at the heart of it.
My parents cooked together.
Crackling, perfection an inch thick
on the side of pig that Dad roasted
while Mum beatified the oven-pan,
red wine gravy, bliss of roux.
Cheerful, family sat where we could,
plates heavy in heady heat, heaped
meat, golden potatoes, peas, carrots too.
Our hands were full. Still there was more,
glasses, cups, Anchor beer and Sunkist,
hot kopi, Cointreau, joyful chatter,
mince pies with cream, walnuts
to crack and chocolates to unwrap.
Dad asked again, again and
again if we’d enough to eat
until decidedly replete, my extended family
levered to their feet, departed noisily.
Day cooled to a close. Dusk drifted quiet
through rooms to settle on stacks
of washing up glinting in the sink.
It was always good, that stillness,
sky kissed with flecks of light,
night unbuttoning its mysteries.
Published in Christmas Spirit: Ten Poems to Warm the Heart, Candlestick Press, £4.95, candlestickpress.co.uk. Copyright L. Kiew.
Shadow Play by Gaia Holmes
Gaia Holmes is a poet and tutor in creative writing, but prior to that she worked as a busker, a cleaner, a gallery attendant, an oral historian and a lollipop lady. Her poem Shadow Play is about a night of desire, lust and fear when the narrator is visited by a gloomy man in the days after Christmas, hinting at a darker side to the season.
He came in winter
when the house was always dark,
brought red Christmas cacti
fire-crackering from their pots
and a suitcase full of candles,
thickened my gloomy rooms
I met the shadows he bred
and did not complain
when he followed me to my bed.
Outside, frost had edged the world
The city foxes were howling,
cracking their teeth on the ice.
The sharp scent of January scared me.
His big hands cast wolves on the walls.
Fear made me knot myself
He had a bristled chin
and smelled of fathers.
‘Tell me a story,’ I said
and he told me how lust
could turn an angel
Published in Where The Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes, Comma Press, £9.99, hive.co.uk
From Toffee by Sarah Crossan
Many of YA writer Sarah Crossan’s novels are told in verse, including her latest Toffee, about a young girl who, escaping a difficult family situation, befriends an old woman and pretends to be her childhood friend Toffee.
From Toffee by Sarah Crossan, Bloomsbury, £12.99, waterstones.co.uk
[little tree] by EE Cummings
EE Cummings, who died in 1962, was one of the most innovative poets of his time, as seen by features including his lack of capitalisation, and his use of spacing in some of his work.
Read the beginning of the poem below, and the whole thing here.
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
Christmas Carol by Sara Teasdale
Born in Missouri to a wealthy family, Sara Teasdale was known for work that centred women’s changing perspectives on beauty, love and death. Teasdale, who died by suicide in 1933, was popular in her lifetime even though she’s not a well known name now.
Her poem Christmas Carol is a retelling of the story of the people who visited Jesus after his birth, with a pay-off in the final lines that offers a humorous edge.
The kings they came from out the south,
All dressed in ermine fine;
They bore Him gold and chrysoprase,
And gifts of precious wine.
The shepherds came from out the north,
Their coats were brown and old;
They brought Him little new-born lambs—
They had not any gold.
The wise men came from out the east,
And they were wrapped in white;
The star that led them all the way
Did glorify the night.
The angels came from heaven high,
And they were clad with wings;
And lo, they brought a joyful song
The host of heaven sings.
The kings they knocked upon the door,
The wise men entered in,
The shepherds followed after them
To hear the song begin.
The angels sang through all the night
Until the rising sun,
But little Jesus fell asleep
Before the song was done.
Music On Christmas Morning by Anne Bronte
The Bronte sisters may be best known for their novels, but their first published book was a collection of their poetry, published under the names Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. Among Anne Bronte’s poetry is this Christmas poem.
Music I love–but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine–
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes borne.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them, I celebrate His birth–
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good-will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a Saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed,
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.
Merry Christmas From Hegel by Anne Carson
Her prose poem Merry Christmas From Hegel – read an extract below – is a musing on philosophy, loneliness and Christmas.
I was overjoyed by this notion of a philosophic space where words drift in gentle mutual redefinition of one another but, at the same time, wretchedly lonely with all my family dead and here it was Christmas Day, so I put on big boots and coat and went out to do some snow standing. Not since childhood! I had forgot how astounding it is. I went to the middle of a woods. Fir trees, the teachers of this, all around. Minus twenty degrees in the wind but inside the trees is no wind. The world subtracts itself in layers. Outer sounds like traffic and shoveling vanish. Inner sounds become audible, cracks, sighs, caresses, twigs, birdbreath, toenails of squirrel.
From Merry Christmas From Hegel, published in The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod, Penguin Classics, £12.99, amazon.co.uk
Tidings: A Christmas Journey by Ruth Padel
Ruth Padel has published a number of collections and is a prize-winning poet. Her long poem Tidings is set on Christmas Eve, the one night a year when Charoum, the Angel of Silence, can speak. During the course of the poem – read an extract below – Charoum tells the story of a little girl, a homeless man, and a fox.
I am the oldest angel, the dark side of the brain.
Everything untold, suppressed, unseemly or wild
is under my protection. I am Charoum,
Angel of Silence. I am the seed of fire
in a hearth you thought was cold,
the stillness when you step into moonlit snow
and who you are in private. I appear
whenever you drop into quiet, when surface
cracks, lustre and veneer rub thin.
Silence, you say, when you make room for wonder.
I am less and less here. But tonight, for twenty-four
strange hours in the darkness of the year, I have a voice –
for this is Christmas Eve, when everything hidden
comes alive. Children’s toys
that have rolled under a sofa, or stayed
in the cupboard unplayed-with for years,
the mice you weren’t aware of in the wall,
and your own unspoken longing to be given
something more by life: suddenly, if you listen,
all unnoticed things can talk. And so can I. Tonight
I play a part in everyone’s secret search
for something better. Come with me
to St Pancras Old Church, on a little London hill
runed with twenty centuries of human stories.
From Tidings by Ruth Padel, illustrated by Sarah Young, Chatto & Windus, £9.99, penguin.co.uk
Winter Time by Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem about winter will make you want to curl up inside with a hot chocolate and a fluffy blanket.
Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,
A blood-red orange, sets again.
Before the stars have left the skies,
At morning in the dark I rise;
And shivering in my nakedness,
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.
Close by the jolly fire I sit
To warm my frozen bones a bit;
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore
The colder countries round the door.
When to go out, my nurse doth wrap
Me in my comforter and cap;
The cold wind burns my face, and blows
Its frosty pepper up my nose.
Black are my steps on silver sod;
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;
And tree and house, and hill and lake,
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.
Blue by Diane Slaney
Each Christmas, he’d change the baling twine
that held his trousers up to festive orange, but
this year he left it blue. He couldn’t find a clean
or hole-free jumper in the blanket box, so shut
the lid forever on its Nina Ricci dust and wore
instead the logo sweatshirt that she hated,
scrawled in blue. Squinting, he plucked a nose
hair on each day of advent, chalked off and feted
their demise with chocolate Santas bought for
kids carolling to the farm. They bleated their best
Bethlehem, expecting gold, getting blue. Vape
rings hanging in cold air said he’d failed the test,
forgotten those kind crinkles at the corner of her
eyes flirting like lost periwinkles on woodland
floors. His shut, he saw her eyelids flicker pain,
the cannula breaking blue on the back of her hand.
Copyright Di Slaney. Published in Reward for Winter, Valley Press, £8.99, valleypress.co.uk
The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy
British novelist Thomas Hardy is well known for his gloomy (to put it mildly) fiction, including Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and Return Of The Native. This Christmas poem has some of that well-known gloom, but there’s also a thread of hope that runs through it.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Published in Dancing by the Light of the Moon by Gyles Brandreth, Michael Joseph, £14.99, hive.co.uk
Minstrels by William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth might be best known for writing about daffodils and spring, but he did turn his attention to the colder months as well, such as in this Christmas poem.
The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage eaves;
While smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.
Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze
Nor check the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.
And who but listened?–till was paid
Respect to every inmate’s claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honor of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And a merry Christmas wished to all.
Reimagining Wordsworth marks the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth in 2020 with the redevelopment of Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum in the Lake District.
Another Christmas Gone by Anonymous
The first white hill still glistens
Beneath the moonlit skies;
As on the night of Christmas
Untrod it sleeping lies,
A new born year is waiting
To meet the early dawn:
And whisper this to all the world,
Another Christmas gone.
Published in Poems for Christmas, introduced by Judith Flanders, Macmillan Collector’s Library, £9.99, waterstones.co.uk
New Every Morning by Susan Coolidge
Susan Coolidge was the pseudonym for poet and children’s author Sarah Chauncey Woolsey; she’s best known for her Katy books, which started with What Katy Did.
Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
And possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.
Published in Poems for Christmas, introduced by Judith Flanders, Macmillan Collector’s Library, £9.99, waterstones.co.uk
Ring Out, Wild Bells from In Memoriam by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Lord Alfred Tennyson was the official poetic spokesman for the reign of Queen Victoria. In this section from his vast poem In Memoriam (which is divided into 131 sections), he reflects on what a new year will bring.
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
The Year by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s meditation on the new year sums up the opportunities and burdens of the coming 12 months.
What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?
The news years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.
We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.
We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.
We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe out prides, we sheet our dead.
We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of a year.
Published in Poems for Christmas, introduced by Judith Flanders, Macmillan Collector’s Library, £9.99, waterstones.co.uk